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Maine Loonatics

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ELLSWORTH - Keeping track of Maine's loon population is no easy task. That's why each July thousands of volunteers known as 'citizen scientists' gather on Maine's lakes and ponds to assist the Maine Audubon in its annual loon count. It's a project that was started 31 years ago when very little was known about the iconic bird.

"I'm no loon expert, I just like them," said volunteer David Moores of New Hampshire. This was Moores's second year participating in the count with his kids. "My three daughters did a whole lot of research on the loon habitat which concluded with participating in the loon count last year. This is the educational piece of our summer vacation."

On the third Saturday in July, all the loon count volunteers are given a certain time of the day and a specific location to conduct their count. The Moores family was assigned to Branch Lake in Ellsworth.

"The lake has gotten busy with boats, but in the morning they're pretty easy to find. We are asked to count the number of adults and chicks. The most difficult part is making sure we don't double count the loons," said Moores.

Although the numbers fluctuate from year to year, the Maine Audubon reports that the adult loon population in southern Maine was just over 3,700 last year, an increase from the year before. The chick population in that same area was at 324, which was more than those spotted in 2012 but far less than in 2011.

"We know that lead poisoning is the leading cause of death for adult loons in Maine, and although not a direct cause of death for chicks, chicks who lose a parent to lead poisoning are probably less likely to survive with only one parent left behind to care for them," said Susan Gallo, director of the Maine Loon Project, in a press release.

Other threats facing the loon population include extreme rain and flooding of nests, predators and disturbances from boaters.

"I know there's at least one chick right in front of our camp this year and its parents are easily spooked by eagles, turtles, humans and other things I'm unaware of," said Moores.

To help protect Maine's loon population, the Maine Audubon suggests obeying no-wake laws within 200 feet of shore, use lead-free tackle, dispose of fishing lines so they don't get tangled in a loon's feet or bill, use phosphorus-free fertilizer and plant shrubs if you live on a lake, keep your distance from a loon's nest (watch them with binoculars instead) and always keep garbage out of the reach of loon egg predators like skunks and raccoons.

"This whole summer loon experience has been a lot of family fun," said Moores.

For more information on the Maine Loon Project and annual loon count, log on to www.maineaudubon.org.

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